The portion of Bo is packed with both action and laws. We learn of the last three plagues suffered by the Egyptians, as well as the eponymous Exodus itself. In addition, we are given the laws of Passover, both as they were observed that first time and as they are meant to be kept for future generations. The portion ends with other commandments given to preserve the memory of this destiny-shaping event throughout the year.
Plagues of Locusts and Darkness
God tells Moses to return once more to Pharaoh, for He has hardened his heart against the plagues and God wishes to send another one: locusts. Whatever grain was not destroyed by the plague of hail will now be consumed by the flying insects.
Pharaoh’s courtiers are moved by Moses’s threats, and ask Pharaoh to let the Hebrews serve their God as requested. Pharaoh acquiesces, but only on condition that the men go alone, leaving the women and children behind. Moses declines, and the swarms sweep through the country, devastating whatever is left of the agricultural crop.
Pharaoh begs for mercy, and is given a reprieve, as God sends a strong wind to blow the locusts away. Pharaoh does not free the slaves, however, so God sends a crippling darkness over the land. This time, to end his suffering, Pharaoh agrees to allow women and children to join in the sacrificial service, but asks that the cattle be left behind. Again Moses refuses those terms, and Pharaoh orders him out of his presence, never to return.
By the plague of locusts, God adds an interesting facet: until now, as the Israel Bible points out, God has said the plagues were intended to show Egypt (and the world) God’s power. Now, however, He adds another dimension: the Israelites are meant to recognize God through His plagues. This teaches us that even the faithful occasionally need a “spiritual boost”.
Points to Ponder
The plagues have been getting progressively worse, from the nuisance of frogs and lice to the life-threatening hail, culminating in the deaths of all Egyptian firstborns. Yet the penultimate plague is darkness. What makes darkness so devastating that it would be the second-last plague? Why do you think God “saves” darkness for nearly the end?
Warning: Death of the Firstborn is Coming!
As Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh after the plague of darkness, God tells Moses he has one more plague planned, after which Pharaoh will have learned his lesson and will chase the Israelites out of Egypt. God also tells Moses that the Israelites should ask their neighbors for gold, jewelry and all fine things.
Moses warns Pharaoh in the name of God that at midnight, He would descend upon Egypt and wipe out all its firstborns, from the son of Pharaoh to the son of the maidservant, and even those of animals. Among the Israelites, however, none will die and not even a dog will bark. Then, Moses says, Pharaoh will expel the Israelites from Egypt.
This chapter tells us that the Israelites had achieved favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, even as they were still being held in slavery. The Israel Bible relates the explanation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who uses context to explain the change. This passage follows the plague of darkness, when the Egyptians were immobilized but the Israelites moved freely in their own light. Despite the opportunity, the Israelites did not rob their Egyptian neighbors, impressing them with their morality.
Points to Ponder
The Torah says God will wipe out the firstborn of everyone in Egypt. Jewish tradition teaches this includes non-Israelite slaves from other lands, too. Why do you think God would extend His wrath onto these foreigners as well?
Passover, Then and Now
God takes this opportunity to instruct Moses on preparing the nation for the final Exodus. He commands each household to take a lamb on the tenth day of the month and bring it into the house. On the fourteenth day, they are to slaughter the lamb and roast it, brushing its blood on the doorposts of their homes. They are to eat the roasted lamb accompanied by bitter herbs and matza, a special unleavened flatbread, while dressed for a journey, with shoes on and walking stick at the ready. The entire lamb must be finished, with any leftovers burned the next morning, so God tells the people families should join together to make sure enough people can consume it. The blood on the doorpost is meant to ensure God passes over the homes of the Israelites during his attack on Egyptian firstborns, set to take place the same night.
God goes on to tell the people that this practice, with some modification, will become part of His worship for all eternity. So that future generations may recall the miracle of the Exodus, Moses tells the people, as per God’s instructions, that from now on, on the anniversary of the Exodus, they are to remove all leavened products from their homes for the duration of seven days. They will bring the Passover lamb as an annual sacrifice and eat the same matza to commemorate the momentous occasion.
God introduces the laws of the Passover lamb by telling Moses that this month should be commemorated for all time as the first month of the year. Yet we know Passover takes place six (and a half) months after the Jewish New Year! As the Israel Bible explains, although the year begins in Tishrei, which in Jewish tradition is the anniversary of creation, the months are numbered from Nissan, when the Exodus took place. In ancient Israel, Nissan was also the point in the year from which kings’ reigns were counted. Nissan holds this significance because it is the birth month of Israel as a nation.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God asks the Israelites to paint lamb’s blood on their doorposts? Surely He knows which homes belong to them! God doesn’t need a sign to differentiate between Israelites and Egyptians, so what purpose would the blood serve?
At midnight, God moves across Egypt, smiting their firstborn children and animals as promised. In despair, Pharaoh calls to Moses and Aaron, telling them to take the Hebrews out from among his people and go serve God in any manner they wish. As God had told them to do earlier, the Israelites ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver and garments, and their requests are granted.
The Children of Israel, freed from the spectre of Egypt after 430 years, travel en masse from Rameses to Succoth. They number 600,000 men alone, not counting women, children or Egyptians who were moved to join them after witnessing the miracles of the plagues. There, they baked leftover dough from the night before into matza.
At this point, God adds details regarding future sacrifices: every male is obligated to participate, but no stranger may eat from it; males must be circumcised to partake; and it must be eaten in one place.
Points to Ponder
The Hebrew words for ‘ask’ and ‘borrow’ are the same, such that it would seem the Israelites were only meant to be “borrowing” the various items they took from their Egyptian neighbors. Clearly, there was never any intention of returning the wealth of items taken from the Egyptians. How can we justify this seemingly deceptive behavior?
Remembering the Exodus
In the closing verses of the portion, God instructs Moses on various ways the Children of Israel are to commemorate the Exodus on an annual basis. In addition to celebrating Passover each year, the people are to dedicate their firstborn children and animals to God’s service, in appreciation for being saved from the Death of the Firstborn in Egypt; and males are to place phylacteries between their eyes and upon their arms each day as a sign of God’s strong arm in taking them out of Egypt.
God states that the people are to remember the day they left Egypt, saying it is in the month of Aviv, which means ‘springtime’. The Israel Bible asks why He makes a point of saying that it is the spring month. The answer: this shows us that God is compassionate, taking the Israelites out of slavery and on a desert journey at a time of year when the weather is most pleasant. It is also a time of rebirth, and what better time to establish the birth of a nation than spring!
Points to Ponder
The commandments mentioned here, along with many others throughout the Torah, are specifically said to be to “remember this day in which ye came out of Egypt.” Others, we are told, commemorate God’s creation of the world. Why are these two events so central to the Torah? Which do you think is more fundamental and why?